The New Enfant Terrible of Hebrew Literature

Morris' refined mannerisms and gentle style are likely to be misleading, because sometimes it seems as though these exist in him alongside some other quixotic, unpredictable and very provocative urges.

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Israeli writer Orian Morris, December 2016.
Israeli writer Orian Morris, December 2016.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
David Neo Buhbut
David Neo Buhbut
David Neo Buhbut
David Neo Buhbut

The latest enfant terrible of Hebrew literature, Orian Morris, works every evening as a waiter in a café in south Tel Aviv's neglected Shapira neighborhood, and supplements his income at a nearby kiosk, selling cigars and candies at night. For years he had very diverse occupations. Among other things, he was a bodyguard for ministers, including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, wrote literary criticism for Haaretz and the religious Zionist weekly Makor Rishon, and also penned opinion pieces.

“Orian Morris was a well-kept literary secret when he published articles in Makor Rishon,” says poet and critic Navit Barel, an editor at Yedioth Books. “The word ‘genius’ is used a lot. I assume that Morris is one of those types for whom it’s easy to use this term. His critiques are simultaneously clumsy and dizzying and precise and clear.” The literary critic of the daily Yedioth Aharonoth, Dr. Arik Glasner, adds that “Orian has something that is essential for a critic, namely courage and an absence of opportunism.”

Morris was born in London in 1976 to Leah (nee Efrati) and Prof. Benny Morris, one of the most famous historians of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The family stayed in England while his father was writing his doctorate at the University of Cambridge. When he was 8 months old, the Morrises returned to Israel and settled in Jerusalem.

Morris has a fascinating duality: On the one hand, he looks and sounds amazingly level-headed: clear, fluent, sober. On the other hand, his refined mannerisms and his gentle style are likely to be misleading, because sometimes it seems as though these exist in him alongside some other quixotic, unpredictable and very provocative urges. When he was 40 his first book, “To Spy for a Different Place,” was published in Hebrew by Kinneret Zmora Bitan.

To hear Morris describe it, “this book is the sum of all my writing failures.” It would seem that any attempt to attribute the book to a defined literary genre is doomed to failure. Morris wrote an intimate book in a manner that is almost brutal, almost wild. It contains innumerable testimonies – some authentic, some distorted – from battlefields, relationships, the world of the literary critic and of the talented and wasted writer, and more.

He sketches horrifying pictures of reality out of a sad and gloomy awareness while defying the rules of political correctness and writing that is considered “correct.” More than anything else, what stands out is his willingness to write a harsh indictment of the figure of the “son,” who is described in most of the stories as a paranoid, hysterical, somewhat pathetic, narcissistic and childish figure.

Of all the testimonies in the book – which is written in a style that is almost like a script, always theatrical, occasionally like a diary – the most prominent are the rejection letters, among them samples from Yedioth Books and New York University. There are also critical and theoretical articles “on literature,” which are also sometimes very personal in their own way, as well as a collection of short stories.

Most of the texts are written in Hebrew and some of them, occasionally, in English as well. There is a dizzying variety of forms and styles, which juggles between the fabricated and the credible, between the fictitious and the authentic, and everything is subject to some unifying invasive rhythm, consolidated in its unconsolidated manner, which Morris defines as a “music box.”

The birth of the book, after many years of writing, took place when he was sitting in a café one day with one of his two daughters, looking to give her something to read. “I looked in my file and saw that most of the stories are of a nature that I don’t really want to give her to read at this stage in her life. I started looking for the first things I wrote, and then I let her read the first thing I ever wrote. I said, Wow, how great would it be to end the book with the first story. Even more, I felt that I was getting some kind of aesthetic instruction as to how I planned to organize my book, which would end with the first things I wrote.

“And then I gave her some other page that explained that you have to read the events from the end to the beginning. And I said, okay, here’s another instruction. This book actually took shape during that moment with my daughter. I realized that it already existed. That I had built a ship during the course of many years. That every page that I pull out now, every word that is said in it, echoes with strings that exist in more complete, later stories. And the moment I realized it I said: Wow, I have a music box. I have a book. All these years I waited and thought it wouldn’t come. That it would be some kind of notebook of defeat. And I didn’t want to publish a notebook of defeat, I wanted to build something. And since I’m a person who may be considered somewhat destructive, I didn’t think I would be able to reach this moment of construction."

A matter of temperament

This construction really wasn’t simple. “I breathed a sigh of relief when the manuscript finally went to press," says Prof. Yigal Schwartz, who edited the book together with Dekel Shay Schory. "Orian is a talented writer – but almost to the same degree he’s a saboteur who specializes in harming himself. Up to the last moment we weren’t sure that there would be a book. And there was also an ‘original’ editing idea,” he says ironically: “Orian suggested a concept: We would work on the final version, he would make corrections, and so on ad infinitum.”

Yigal Schwartz.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

In Schwartz’s opinion, one of the things that makes Morris unique, which is reflected in his book, is that “He has no God. He has no taboo. The boundary between the private and the public is erased for him – although he makes sure to reveal and camouflage himself constantly. Scandal isn’t something marginal here. It’s the thing itself and the genuine medium. It’s tragicomic standup – which incidentally began [in Israel] with women’s literature in the late 1980s – which was distorted and improved into a sadomasochistic performance that you can’t take your eyes off of.”

Dr. Oded Wolkstein, a lecturer, translator and literary editor, adds: “Morris’ text is monstrous. Instead of offering us, as is customary, a polished and saleable product, neatly confessional and somewhat victimized, he provides us with a glimpse of the kitchen in which the legend about the birth of the writer is being cooked. And oh, how dirty that kitchen is.”

Benny Ziffer, editor of the Haaretz Culture and Literature supplement, said something similar about Morris’ critical writing. “In his writing there was an impression of extensive knowledge and analytical ability, but at a certain moment he would enter the text like some kind of bad boy and destroy all the credibility of the analysis.”

Writer and columnist Iris Leal believes that “As is usually the case, Orian’s strength is also his weakness: He loses his head when discussing the work. It’s a matter of temperament, and in his case it’s also a matter of a tempestuous intellect. I told him in conversations we had that he’s an impulsive critic, and therefore irresponsible. In my opinion he doesn’t want to be responsible. Many considerations extraneous to literature come into play with him. A writer’s persona, his status, holding a place in the front row and the second.”

Morris did his military service as a combat soldier and commander in the paratroopers, during which he saw the death of his company commander in battle and participated in an ambush in which a number of Hezbollah members were killed. After the army, Morris completed his bachelor’s degree in film at Tel Aviv University and entered a stormy decade. He went through several rounds of debates and violent clashes centered around his writing, including his opinion pieces.

In 2013 he wrote an article in Haaretz Hebrew edition called “Being a good Mizrahi,” in which he attacked the Mizrahi Ars Poetica poetry group and accused them of ignorance and coarseness. In January 2015 he published a short story in Haaretz's Culture and Literature supplement called “Prostitutes, the holy city and the complete guide to Hebrew literature” (which also appears in his book). In an article written in response, Amalia Rosenblum wrote that “The text is a hate crime camouflaged as a short story, whose victims are women who engage in prostitution.” Morris explained in a response of his own that he intended “to paint the literary world precisely with the abjection of the world of prostitution.”

In 2002, after meeting his first wife-to-be and the mother of his daughters, Morris found himself witness to a terror attack: A shooting that killed three people and wounded 35 at Tel Aviv's Seafood Market, where he was working as a waiter. His experiences are described in the story “A Mother’s Love, a Father’s Love,” which also appears in the book.

Three weeks later he encountered another shooting incident during reserve duty, only this time he was inside an armored personnel carrier. At that moment, he realized that he was no longer willing to be in such extreme situations out of choice. The feeling that he was losing his trust in the military system was reinforced during Operation Cast Lead, which began in late 2008. The story “Why I Won’t Be Drafted For the Previous War,” also in the book, deals with the circumstances that lead the main character to abscond from the battlefield at the start of the military operation in Gaza for an almost insanely unrealistic reason: the loss of a coat.

As is true of Orian Morris, the attitude toward his father and his work has also undergone many ups and downs. At the start of his career, Benny Morris coined the term “new historians” to describe a handful of young Israeli writers, including himself, who were recasting the standard Zionist narrative; he was the target of penetrating public criticism. Years later he changed some of his political views and stopped believing in the Palestinians’ sincere desire to reach an agreement.

“I grew up in the shadow of the heroism of this act and a recognition of the personal, family, economic and social price he paid,” says Orian. “I strongly identified with the difficult viewpoint that he took upon himself. ‘Jew-hater’ was the most common epithet in the newspapers. I remember that feeling of an individual who holds on to some truth against very strong social forces and pays a very high price. I remember my father going to prison because he refused to serve in the territories.

“That’s part of the reason why I snicker a bit at the false heroism of the representatives of the current social protests. All kinds of people who are deeply entrenched in power and the social consensus and present themselves as all kinds of crucified Jesuses on the main path of Zionism – and they aren’t. We have poets who are heroes because they meticulously observe the ideology of the culture minister, and she’s the culture minister precisely because there is no culture in her and she has no culture.”

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